Life moves differently in Iceland. This may not come as a surprise to you if you digest those articles that wax lyrical about why the Nordic work-life balance (or should I say LIFE-work balance, as the emphasis falls more heavily on the former) reigns supreme. Now that I have had the pleasure of visiting this tiny North Atlantic country for the third time, I will do my best to highlight some of the key differences between the Icelandic (by Icelandic, I just mean Reykjavík) and American way of life (erm…from my limited exposure with the former that is).
First, some quick facts. Iceland is NOT a European Union member, which means that it does not use the Euro, instead it uses the króna. According to Wikipedia, Iceland is the second smallest country by population to have its own currency and monetary policy (after the African island nation of Seychelles). Icelanders speak Icelandic as their native language, but the overwhelming majority of people also speak English or another European language. About 60% of the population of Iceland lives in the greater Reykjavík area (i.e. the Capital Region). Also, as an observation, I have never seen a homeless person in Reykjavík, which is not to say that they do not exist, rather that poverty is at least less visible there.
Now, here are some peculiarities about Reykjavík, Iceland…
It’s literally never hot here. You can buy wool all year long. I’m in Reykjavík in early May and one morning, I found that the forecasted precipitation turned out to be a light sprinkling of snow. The seasons are also long here with the fall and spring bleeding into winter and summer. Additionally, because Iceland is so far north, the summer is blessed with near endless days, while the winter, cursed with nights that drag on and on and on…. During my early-May visit, the sun rose just after 4am and set after 10:30pm — it was a blast 🙂
The culture around alcohol is not as big here as it is in other countries. Icelandic supermarkets are not allowed to sell alcohol, in fact, only government stores (Vínbúðin) are given this privilege. The legal drinking age in Iceland is 20 years and the highest allowable blood alcohol content (BAC) to operate a motor vehicle is 0.05% (with new legislation proposing a reduction to 0.02%); to put this into perspective the federal limit in the U.S. is 0.08%.
Food and drinks are expensive here (I paid $5 for a normal coffee with whole milk and my friend paid $11 for a latte with oat milk!!). Alcohol is taxed up the wazoo. Also, unlike with American restaurants where you pay your bill with the waiter at your table; in Iceland, parties physically get up from the table and visit the front counter to pay the check (tips are not expected). One similarity between Iceland and the U.S. when it comes to dining out is mealtimes. Both cultures tend to eat dinner earlier (with 5pm and 6pm being acceptable mealtimes; unlike in other places [Argentina, Italy, for example] where dinner doesn’t start until 8pm or 9pm).
As an island nation, it should hardly come as a surprise to you that seafood is a staple of Icelandic cuisine — tuna, arctic char, smoked salmon, and shrimp are readily available. Like many cold-weather cultures, the Icelandic diet is meat heavy and here you can even try reindeer, shark, and even puffin (if you dare). Also, in contrast to shrimp and bacon in other parts of the world, here in Iceland these meats are very chewy (and not in a good way…). Also, on this note every sandwich that I encountered (minus the vegan ones) included mayonnaise — and not the low-fat kind. Finally, with hardly a harvest season to speak of, fresh produce in Iceland should not be taken for granted. For example, at the Keflavik airport, there was no fresh fruit served except for a sad pile of bananas at the cafeteria check out (yet, there was the cafe Joe & the Juice, which makes AWESOME fresh-fruit juice and smoothies). In the grocery stores, you can find the basics — apples, oranges, cucumbers, etc. — but they aren’t cheap.
There are pools and lagoons galore here! You can swim just as easily here in December as you can in August. Although the air temperature was hovering around 50 degrees when our group took a trip to the Sky Lagoon near Reykjavík the water was warm (heavenly really). Pools also come in different temperatures — hot tubs, cold pools, warm, and normal-swimming-temperature ones. Bathing culture in Iceland is just — mwahh **chef’s kiss** (more here).
One thing that I have taken for granted in the U.S. is the convenience of shopping. We have a slew of 24-hour convenience stores, drive thrus, and shops/ cafes that operate until 9 or even 10pm. This just isn’t the case in Iceland. In Reykjavík, most stores on the weekdays do not open until 9 or 10am and close around 6 or 7pm. The local gyms have hours from 8am – 6pm and the national museums close almost uniformly by 5pm. So, maybe Icelanders just spend more time at home? Not a fan… not sorry.
The tap water smells like rotten eggs (sulfur). This is because the water is heated by geothermal energy, but it’s still somehow potable (drinkable). Yum.
I love yogurt, which is why I am choosing to focus on two particularly Icelandic dairy offerings — Skyr and Mjólk (specifically the ABT brand). Skyr is the thick, creamy yogurt that is not too hard to find here in the U.S. (Siggi’s brand of skyr may even be found at some Starbucks locations). Unlike skyr, mjólk (a word that means “milk” in Icelandic) has a milky consistency and is often mixed in with granola or other ingredients and eaten similarly to cereal. I have yet to find mjólk or anything mjólk-like in the U.S., but I’ll keep searching, because it’s amazing.
Finally, if it wasn’t obvious from some of the above points, I will plainly state now — Reykjavík, Iceland is not cheap. In 2020, Forbes placed Iceland as the third most expensive European country (after Switzerland and Norway). So…plan accordingly!
Have you visited Iceland? What other differences have you found?